Gertrude Stein (1874 - 1946)

Gertrude Stein Biography

Gertrude Stein
Gertrude Stein. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Stein's experimental writing won her credence with those who were creating a modernist literature, but only one book she wrote was financially successful.

Dates: February 3, 1874 - July 27, 1946

Occupation: writer, salon hostess

Gertrude Stein's Early Years

Gertrude Stein was born the youngest of five children in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, to Jewish-American parents. When she was six months old, her family went to Europe: first Vienna, then to Paris.

She thus learned several other languages before learning English. The family returned to America in 1880 and Gertrude Stein grew up in Oakland and San Francisco, California.

In 1888 Gertrude Stein's mother died after a long battle with cancer, and in 1891 her father died suddenly. Her oldest brother, Michael, became guardian of the younger siblings. In 1892 Gertrude Stein and her sister moved to Baltimore to live with relatives. Her inheritance was enough for her to live comfortably.

Education

With little formal education, Gertrude Stein was admitted as a special student to the Harvard Annex in 1893 (it was renamed Radcliffe College the next year), while her brother Leo attended Harvard. She studied psychology with William James, and graduated magna cum laude in 1898.

Gertrude Stein studied medicine at Johns Hopkins for four years, leaving with no degree after having difficulty with her last year of courses.

Her leaving may have been connected with a failed romance with May Bookstaver, about which Gertrude later wrote. Or it may have been that her brother Leo had already left for Europe.

Gertrude Stein, Expatriate

In 1903, Gertrude Stein moved to Paris to live with her brother, Leo Stein. They began to collect art, as Leo intended to be an art critic.

Their home at 27, rue de Fleurus, became home to their Saturday salons. A circle of artists gathered around them, including such notables as Picasso, Matisse, and Gris, whom Leo and Gertrude Stein helped bring to public attention. Picasso even painted a portrait of Gertrude Stein.

In 1907, Gertrude Stein met Alice B. Toklas, another wealthy Jewish Californian, who became her secretary, amanuensis, and lifelong companion. Stein called the relationship a marriage, and love notes made public in the 1970s reveal more about their intimate lives than they discussed publicly during Stein's lifetime. Stein's pet names for Toklas included "Baby Precious" and "Mama Woojums," and Toklas' for Stein included "Mr. Cuddle-Wuddle" and "Baby Woojums."

By 1913, Gertrude Stein had become separated from her brother, Leo Stein, and in 1914 they divided the art that they'd collected together.

First Writings

As Pablo Picasso was developing a new art approach in cubism, Gertrude Stein was developing a new approach to writing. She wrote The Making of Americans in 1906 to 1908, but it was not published until 1925. In 1909 Gertrude Stein published Three Lives, three stories including "Melanctha" of particular note.

In 1915 she published Tender Button, which has been described as a "verbal collage."

Gertrude Stein's writing brought her further renown, and her home and salons were frequented by many writers as well as artists, including many American and English expatriates. She tutored Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway, among others, in their writing efforts.

Gertrude Stein and World War I

During World War I, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas continued to provide a meeting place for the modernists in Paris, but they also worked to aid the war effort. Stein and Toklas delivered medical supplies, financing their efforts by selling pieces from Stein's art collection. Stein was awarded a medal of recognition (Médaille de la Réconnaissance Francoise, 1922) by the French government for her service.

Gertrude Stein Between the Wars

After the war, it was Gertrude Stein who coined the phrase "lost generation" to describe the disenchanted English and American expatriates who were part of the circle centered around Stein.

In 1925, Gertrude Stein spoke at Oxford and Cambridge in a series of lectures designed to bring her to wider attention. And in 1933, she published her book, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, the first of Gertrude Stein's writings to be financially successful. In this book, Stein takes on the voice of Alice B. Toklas in writing about herself (Stein), only revealing her authorship near the end.

Gertrude Stein ventured into another medium: she wrote the libretto of an opera, "four Saints in Three Acts," and Virgil Thomson wrote the music for it. Stein traveled to America in 1934, lecturing, and seeing the opera debut in Hartford, Connecticut, and be performed in Chicago.

Gertrude Stein and World War II

As World War II approached, the lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas were changed. In 1938 Stein lost the lease on 27, rue de Fleurus, and in 1939 the couple moved to a country house. They later lost that house and moved to Culoz. Though Jewish, feminist, American, and intellectual, Stein and Toklas were protected from the Nazis during the 1940 - 1945 occupation by well-connected friends. For example, in Culoz, the mayor did not include their names on the list of residents given to the Germans.

Stein and Toklas moved back to Paris before the liberation of France, and met many American GIs. Stein wrote about this experience in another book.

After World War II

The year 1946 saw the debut of Gertrude Stein's second opera, "The Mother of Us All," the story of Susan B. Anthony.

Gertrude Stein planned to move back to the United States after World War II, but discovered that she had inoperable cancer.

She died on July 27, 1946.

In 1950, Things as They Are, Gertrude Stein's novel about lesbian relationships, written in 1903, was published.

Alice B. Toklas lived until 1967, writing a book of her own memoirs before her death. Toklas was buried in the Paris cemetery beside Gertrude Stein.

Places: Allegheny, Pennsylvania; Oakland, California; San Francisco, California; Baltimore, Maryland; Paris, France; Culoz, France.

Religion: Gertrude Stein's family was of German Jewish descent.